Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Book I Just Finished

I'd never read anything by Thomas Sowell other than popular pieces at online journals before this book.
In Wealth, Poverty, and Politics, Thomas Sowell, one of the foremost conservative public intellectuals in this country, argues that political and ideological struggles have led to dangerous confusion about income inequality in America. Pundits and politically motivated economists trumpet ambiguous statistics and sensational theories while ignoring the true determinant of income inequality: the production of wealth. We cannot properly understand inequality if we focus exclusively on the distribution of wealth and ignore wealth production factors such as geography, demography, and culture.
There are plenty of reviews online for anyone interested.  Sowell's main thesis is that economic inequalities result from a wide array of factors beyond the typical ones cited such as "systemic racism," public policy, a lack or abundance of natural resources, etc.  The chapter titles should give anyone interested an idea of Sowell's project:

Chapter 1: Issues
Chapter 2: Geographic Factors
Chapter 3: Cultural Factors
Chapter 4: Social Factors
Chapter 5: Political Factors
Chapter 6: Implications and Prospects

Sowell criticizes economic theories which are deterministic in favor of a more holistic approach which allows for causal influence short of determination.  Taking geographic factors as our example, some tend to explain the economic success of a nation in terms of its natural resources.  To demonstrate that this is false, Sowell gives historical examples to show that some countries low on natural resources have had excellent economies whereas some with plentiful natural resources have had poor economies.  The book contains a wealth of statistics.

A couple examples from Chapter 2:

Harbors.  Africa lacks a lot of natural harbors, thus throughout its relatively early history its geography was such that the mercantile industry largely avoided it.  Though it is sometimes cited as having many miles of navigable waterways, many are only navigable by canoe and others by larger ships only for part of the year during monsoon seasons.

Mountains.  People who live on mountains tend to be less intelligent and poorer.  Part of the explanation is that such people are isolated from trade and new ideas even from relatively nearby villages.  However people who live on the side of the mountain that gets rain have access to travel by waterways and agriculture due to a large amount of rainfall.


  1. An excellent book. I am close to finishing it myself. I picked it up after reading his Intellectuals and Race (Basic Books, 2013), which is also excellent.

  2. Thanks. I'll add Intellectuals and Race to my list.